Dirty or not, Mike Mitchell has become a central character in Steelers-Ravens rivalry

0:57 | NFL
Ravens vs. Steelers: Who has the edge in the AFC North?
Friday December 23rd, 2016

It’s unclear what exactly has led to the animosity between Steve Smith and Mike Mitchell. Sure, they play on rival teams now, but they were once quite friendly as teammates with the Panthers. Also fuzzy is just how Mitchell has come to be known, at least in some parts, as a dirty player.

Mitchell, the Steelers’ brash, hard-hitting safety, has spent part of this week railing against the notion that he doesn’t play the game the right way. Following two games against the Bengals this year, he’s been mentioned twice by a Bengals player and head coach for his … questionable hits.

In the past few years he’s taken on the nickname “Hitman”, which refers to the hard hits he delivers but can also be seen in a more literal sense as someone who “takes people out”. Eight years into the league, whatever Mitchell’s reputation is, it doesn’t bother him.

NFL
‘Pure Hatred’: An Oral History of the Steelers-Ravens Rivalry

“I don’t really care. I don’t. I don’t. I don’t at all,” Mitchell says. “I don’t want to spend too much time thinking about stuff that doesn’t matter.”

If you’re looking for any bold declarations or call-outs the week of the latest Ravens-Steelers rematch, Mitchell doesn’t have much for you. He did his talking before the last meeting, and it didn’t work out too well for him or his team. Bring up Smith, and Mitchell’s exhaustion is palpable.

But he does want to clear the air on this perception that he’s a dirty player. After Pittsburgh’s Week 2 win over the Bengals, Cincinnati offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said there are “a lot of guys who play nasty” and pointed to Mitchell launching himself in A.J. Green’s direction on an incomplete pass. This past week, in reference to a question about volatile linebacker Vontaze Burfict, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said linebackers and safeties, like Mitchell, are “at the tip of the sword” on all plays. This led to Mitchell posting an Instagram video advising Lewis to keep Mitchell’s name out of his mouth.

NFL
Questions about his health remain, but Luke Kuechly is focused on returning to the field

“Three years ago was the grace period where everyone was transitioning with the new hit rules. So there were obviously a lot of fines,” Mitchell says. “But the last two years, if you look at specifically head-to-head hits, I think I’ve only been penalized one time, and I’ve got to be leading the league in big hits. So if anybody has changed their game for the good, I can’t think of a better example of that than me.”

Where he stands in the subjective “big hits” category is unknown, but he only has one helmet-to-helmet penalty in the past two seasons. He has two other unnecessary roughness penalties this season, but one was a weak call and the other was a late shove out of bounds.

Last season the NFL fined him $8,681 for unnecessary roughness on Antonio Gates, and two months later he was fined another $23,152 for a hit on defenseless Cincinnati tight end Tyler Eifert. That was his one helmet-to-helmet hit (and of course it was against the Bengals), but Mitchell has an explanation.

John Grieshop/Getty

“But if you look at that play, it was a really low-thrown ball,” Mitchell says. “A 6' 5" tight end, what’s he doing going low anyway? If you look at the play, if you see how low I am aimed, the dude kind of dives into the hit based on how the ball was thrown. The NFL looked at that, heard my story and the fine was significantly reduced. I got more than half of it back. Basically they were saying they were wrong. Usually that doesn’t happen. You might get a third of it back, but you never get more than half.”

Penalties and fines aside, Mitchell has been a key member of a Pittsburgh team that has turned around its fortunes, following a four-game losing streak with a five-game win streak. Opponents are averaging just 14 points per game in the past five contests, and Mitchell has one interception in that span.

A former standout at Ohio University that didn’t get a combine invitation, Mitchell was drafted in the second round by the Raiders in 2009. He played out his rookie contract before signing a one-year, $1 million prove-it deal with the Panthers in 2013. With one of the top front sevens in the league in front of him, Mitchell had career-highs in sacks (four) and interceptions (four) in Carolina’s 12–4 season. That earned him a five-year, $25 million deal with the Steelers that off-season.

Fantasy
Fantasy football Start 'Em, Sit 'Em: How to set lineups for championship matchups

In the past two years, a rivalry within a rivalry has grown. Mitchell and Smith, who were teammates for a season in Carolina, have become enemies. Mitchell says he went to church with Smith a handful of times in Charlotte, and Smith has said Mitchell called him asking for contract advice before he signed with the Steelers.

But during last season’s first Ravens-Steelers game, Smith took a shot to the back from Lawrence Timmons. The veteran receiver first thought it was Mitchell—though later corrected to Timmons, with whom he has no quarrel—and went on to say Mitchell yelled “How do you like that?” while Smith was on the ground. For that, Smith said, Mitchell went on his “lifetime hit list.”

“He is one of the people I will hunt up when I come back for my final season,” Smith told ESPN Radio in the off-season. “I make enough money so I’m willing to take whatever fine I can get because I still have some change left over.”

Before the first meeting this season, Mitchell tweeted, “A lot of talk. Today’s the day we find out. #LurkGang #IAmTheHunter #IAmTheHitman.” Smith caught a 30-yard pass that included a stiff-arm on Mitchell, Mike Wallace beat Mitchell for a 95-yard touchdown and the Ravens won 19–14 at home.

After the game, Smith talked about Mitchell without using his name, saying that anytime he mentions Mitchell, it just increases his profile.

“I’m a foundation builder,” Smith said. “He is a cabinet.”

NFL
Blanket Coverage: What do top NFL teams all have in common? Strong offensive lines

The Steelers beat the Colts 28–7 on Thanksgiving night, and after the game, Mitchell had Smith on his mind. “We’re coming for you, Steve,” Mitchell told ESPN’s Bob Holtzman on the field, despite Holtzman not bringing up Smith or the Ravens.

“Let’s go all the way back. This guy repeatedly loves to say my name and bring me into things that I’m not involved in,” Mitchell says. “After that game, it was an emotional time and a big win for us, and I was still kind of thinking about the comments from the first time we played them this year. Obviously going into this game the most important factor is the win and that’s all I’m thinking about. All the talking and everything else goes out the window.”

There will be no talk from Mitchell before the Christmas night game. Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin has been known to put the kibosh on extra-curricular activity before, and Mitchell says he’s going to play this one honest.

He believes in himself, he says, but he tries to be humble both in victory and defeat.

“Going into every game I’m confident,” Mitchell says, “but after the game I always try to be humble and respectful of my opponents, and this Sunday will be no different.”

Even with Steve?

“This Sunday will be no different.”

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.